Mountains and valleys evoke beautiful images in the mind of big city dwellers, of peace and quiet, lightness of being, and the absence of the madding crowd. We presume the life of the people who live inside the fascinating landscape to be as blissful. Once you are there, it does not take much to realise that the people living at the edge — where the land merges into mighty mountain ranges — face immense hardship.
Mountain people depend on subsistence agriculture, wage labour, circulatory labour migration, tourism and mountaineering services for survival. Opportunities for government employment are limited. Most households survive on a combination of livelihoods. The people of Shigar and Ghanche districts, whom I met during a trip to Skardu, talked of many challenges. These included the absence of livelihood opportunities except tourism, scarcity of water, poor road networks, inadequate social infrastructure, climate change and frequent landslides.
While the predicament of coal miners in Pakistan is relatively well known, sadly due to frequent fatal underground mining disasters, little comes to light about the life and work conditions of those engaged in artisanal small-scale dimension stone (ie marble, granite, etc) quarrying on the surface, or gemstone mining up on the mountains.
Under-reporting does not mean surface mining and gem digging is less dangerous. Stone mine collapse, causing death and injuries to workers, is not uncommon. In 2020, two such accidents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa took lives of 29 workers. High-altitude gemstone mining poses great risk as digging is carried out along the veins in the mountain walls accessed by harnesses and ropes which requires climbing skills and agility. Accidents in dimension stone and gemstone mining operations in remote mountainous areas of KP and Gilgit Baltistan largely go unreported. Also, the implications of mining on the community is seldom documented.
Standard employment, the long-term work arrangement with one employer, pension and benefits, is vanishing. The pandemic has made the process faster. Non-standard, exploitative forms of employment have existed since ages and remain the dominant arrangement in capitalist societies. The only difference is that another category called ‘gig’ has been added to the existing irregular, contractual, temporary or on-call arrangements. The unifying factor for non-standard arrangements is that none provides protection to workers. Gig workers constitute a significant number of those impacted by Covid-19’s economic fallout in the Western world and Asia.
‘Gig work’ refers to non-standard employment on precarious contracts with digital on-demand platforms. The nature of work varies on the basis of different types of IT-based work platforms. Crowd-work platforms outsource online clerical tasks (eg data entry, business consulting) to a dispersed crowd of workers. Location-based platforms (eg Careem, FoodPanda, AirLyft) allocate offline manual work, such as delivery or transport services, to individuals in a specific geographical area. Online tasks which require a certain level of education appear to be less exploitative than offline manual work.
No aspect of labour economy is as divisive and as controversial as minimum wage. On one side are economists and employers who think minimum wage creates distortion in the labour market, leads to unemployment and lowers productivity. Add to this the anti-poor section who thinks the poor are lazy, illiterate and deserve low wages! On the other side are sociologists, political economists, pro-poor policymakers who think all human beings have a right to a decent living and thus need a wage floor to put their feet on the ground so as not to fall into the abyss of poverty.
Debate on minimum wage has intensified in the 21st century since the American economists challenged the classical view and presented empirical evidence that minimum wage increases do not have adverse effect on employment in Myth and Measurement: The New Economics of the Minimum Wage in 1995. Factors which impact productivity are workers’ education and skills and technology. However, these topics, worthy of greater debate in Pakistan, do not receive as much attention or ignite sentiments as does minimum wage.
The key elements of neoliberal policies — free market, minimal state intervention and flexible labour — hinge on a crucial principle which, according to Noam Chomsky, is “undermining mechanisms of social solidarity and mutual support and popular engagement in determining policy”. Yet, despite the crushing creed of neoliberalism that gives precedence to individual ‘freedom’ over collective agency, strong resistance to neoliberal hegemony is alive and kicking in the world.
One such voice you find at home is of the Anjuman-i-Mazarain Punjab where apparently ‘all is quiet’ since its general secretary Abdul Sattar Mehar was acquitted in September 2020 after four years of incarceration. The Anjuman’s struggle against corporatisation of farms is ongoing as successive governments have not granted them land ownership. It has been two decades since tenant-cultivators in Okara and the adjoining districts took control of the farms and stopped paying rent.
Just six months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, trade unions had reiterated the urgency of protecting workers’ rights on a global platform and warned against “an unprecedented level of income inequality, shrinking democratic space and an age of anger where corporations have too much power and people too little”. This was at the 100th conference of the International Labour Organisation held in May 2019.
Then came the pandemic which wreaked havoc on peoples’ lives and livelihoods across the board. In Asia-Pacific alone, about 81 million jobs were lost by December 2020. Cases of violations of workers and trade unions’ rights with regard to lay-offs, working hours and the payment of wages increased manifold.
Though trade unions have weakened globally in the 21st century, their role is still considered vital in promoting equity and stability in society and their participation essential in tripartite and bipartite social policy dialogues. Trade union density across the world varies from high (90.4 per cent in Iceland) to medium (43.2pc in Egypt) to low (12.6pc in India) and very low (2.3pc in Pakistan).
If you spend a few days in Hunza Valley, you are struck by its natural beauty. Karakoram’s unique mountain range, high peaks, glaciers, lakes, orchards, flora and fauna take your breath away at every curve of the road, every nook and corner. But what really wins your heart are its people: soft spoken, friendly, hospitable and educated. The literacy rate in Hunza is 97 per cent —the highest in Pakistan — and most of the young have professional degrees.
Women are empowered. You find them going about their tasks, with their heads covered and chins up, on the Karakoram Highway, running dhabasand resorts along with their husbands, managing orchards and maintaining households. You even find a classy café — Kha Basi — near Altit Fort, Karimabad, run by a team of 10 women! Hunza is a valley where women travelling alone or in groups of two or more feel safe. I thought: how wonderful, if you want to feel good about Pakistan, visit Hunza Valley.
As our train proceeded from Fez to Marrakech, the pink city, I wondered what Jama al-Fina, the square in Marrakech’s old medina, would be like. Just before our journey, I had discovered a novel by a Moroccan writer Youssef Fadel, A beautiful white cat walks with me — a compelling, eerie and grim story of Sanawat-ar-Rusas (the years of lead), the reign of King Hasan II (1960s to 1980s) marked by political repression and violence. A masterpiece, this novel is a story of those years told by a father-and-son duo. A king’s private jester at the royal court, the father had begun his career as a story-teller at Jama al-Fina.
After a six-hour journey from Shahfshawan, we got down at the bus station in Fez, the highlight of our journey, wherein lies the oldest Islamic metropolis, that has retained its character and structure through the centuries.
The next day we decided to visit the nearby city Tétouan. I was keen to visit Tétouan as I was told by several shop keepers in Shafshawan that Tétouan is known as a city of artisans and artists and many art galleries and craft shops in Shafshawan are owned by Tétouanis. Also, the city has the only fine arts university in Morocco, the National Institute of Fine Arts Tétouan. Unfortunately, it was closed the day we visited. We took pictures of students’ art projects placed in the verandah and the garden.